Ian McEwan’s ‘Psychopolis’: Imagery, subject, theme (tip 80) Reply

In this video, D.D. Johnston discusses how imagery is often the connecting point between subject and theme (for a reminder about subject and theme, see writing tip 71). He looks at Ian McEwan’s short story ‘Psychopolis’ and presents a weird theory about Magpies. Psychopolis is available here, starting on page 52.

Suppose you’re writing a story and you want to describe a magpie. You could just describe any old magpie, to give the story some concrete detail, a little verisimilitude, or even some lyricism. But ideally you want that magpie to work as hard as possible and to also convey something about your themes. In simplistic terms, I mean this.

If your story’s about love, how many magpies does your protagonist see? Two happy magpies sitting side by side on a branch. But if it’s about loneliness? One wee magpie all alone. If it’s about death, your protagonist sees a dead magpie. If the character’s trapped and can’t move on then perhaps she sees a poorly magpie with a broken wing. But if the story’s ultimately about escape then at the end the poorly magpie recovers and soars into the sky. If the story’s about poverty then there’s a magpie eating out of a dustbin. If it’s about childhood then there’s a cute wee baby magpie. And if it’s a loss of innocence story, the cute wee baby magpie is run over by a truck.

Now, these are grossly simplified and clichéd examples. But I want to argue that major writers merely deploy a more complex version of the same technique. Take Ian McEwan’s short story ‘Psychopolis.’ I want to claim that McEwan uses imagery to link subject and theme [for a reminder about subject and theme, see writing tip 71].

In particular, I want to focus on the imagery of parallel bars. McEwan writes:

“Near where I stood on the very edge of the beach were different kinds of parallel bars, empty and stark, their crude geometry marked by silence.”

And we know these bars are important because he mentions them again seven pages later:

“She smiled and we held hands for an empty moment in which there came to me from nowhere a vivid image of the parallel bars on the beach.”

If I’m right then these parallel bars have some role to play in linking the story’s subject to its theme.

The subject of McEwan’s story concerns an Englishman who is living in Los Angeles and who describes a series of bizarre and seemingly unrelated events. For instance, his friend Mary asks him to chain her up and leave her with only a frying pan in which to urinate in. Another friend wets himself on purpose. In between these bizarre events, the narrator struggles to figure out what to do with himself. At one point he sits on the lavatory for two hours while he thinks what he’ll do next. In fact, given the varied and seemingly unrelated incidents described, the story at first glance barely qualifies as an example of the short story form. But I think it achieves artistic unity through its theme.

What’s its theme? Well, here’s a reading, not necessarily the only one. And to make sense of it, I want to briefly mention the theories of a French sociologist, Emile Durkheim.

You see, once upon a time, western society was premodern. Most people lived in small rural communities among their extended families. They had little freedom to dictate their own lives – if you were the child of a peasant farmer then you would almost certainly be a peasant farmer yourself. But you did have lots of certainty in terms of meaning and appropriate behaviour. Clear rules were set by the feudal lord and the clergy, who would tell you in no uncertain terms the word of God, which you yourself couldn’t read or interpret. But over several hundred years, all this changed. the age of modernity begins around 1600. It’s a period of history characterised by Enlightenment thought that questioned tradition, Secularisation that undermined the role of the church, Industrial Revolution that led to Urbanisation as people were forced from their traditional communities into cities, where they had to sell their labour power to a Capitalist, and these processes resulted in much Individualisation. With that came a great increase in Freedom but also a great deal of Isolation and uncertainty.

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim described the modern condition as one of Anomie, which can be defined as a condition of hopelessness caused or characterised by breakdown of rules of conduct and loss of belief and sense of purpose. I think this is the condition the narrator suffers in ‘Psychopolois.’

One alternative is to return to tradition. This is what the narrator’s friend George does. He is raising his kids as Christian even though he’s totally secular and doesn’t believe in God. He justifies this strange decision by saying:

“…at least for now they have a coherent set of values…”.

Let’s go back to our parallel bars. McEwan could have chosen any piece of play equipment. But he went for parallel bars. What do parallel bars do? They never meet. They live side by side without ever interacting. So the parallel bars are one way that McEwan develops a metaphor about the distance between people – the sense of isolation. He also writes:

“Now that I was moving among them I noticed how far apart each solitary sunbather was. It seemed to take minutes to walk from one to another.”

“‘People here,’ Terence said as we left the Doggie Diner, ‘live so far from each other. Your neighbour is someone forty minutes’ car ride away, and when you finally get together you’re out to wreck each other with the frenzy of having been alone.’”

So the distance between people is social and cultural as well as geographical. And, separated from others and from tradition, the narrator doesn’t know what to do with himself:

“I wandered from room to room turning on the lights, leaning in doorways and staring in at objects that already were familiar.”

“I spent ten minutes cleaning my teeth knowing that when I finished I would have to choose to do something else.”

“Towards the middle of the afternoon I dialled the time and set the clock exactly. I sat on the lavatory a long time and decided then not to move until I had decided what to do next. I remained there over two hours…”

Others act in seemingly crazy ways: Mary asks to be chained up, the narrator’s friend ate glass then jumped under a train, Terrence pisses himself on purpose, the comedian may or may not be a comedian, and, at the end, Terrence plays a bizarre trick with the gun.

This last incident happens at a dinner party where the protagonist is saying farewell to his American friends before he returns to the UK. Throughout the story he has been practising playing the flute, and at the end he attempts to perform a Bach sonata for his friends. He finds he can’t play it.

“As the notes transferred themselves from the page to the ends of my fingers I thought, Am I still playing this? (…) Why did I go on doing what I couldn’t do, music from another time and civilization, its certainty and perfection to me a pretense and a lie, as much as they had once been, or might still be, a truth to others. What should I look for? (…) Something difficult and free.”

I think the story’s ultimately an existentialist one. It’s about resisting the lure of tradition and bad faith, about embracing freedom and creating one’s own meaning.

So the subject of the story is about a Brit feeling isolated and lost in the strangeness and size of Los Angeles. The theme of the story is that the modern condition is one of anomie: we are lost and alone in a world that lacks meaning. Don’t retreat into inauthentic being – choose the difficult path of being free. And imagery such as the parallel bars plays a crucial role in drawing the theme out of the subject.

To put it back in the simple terms I started with, if you’re writing this story, the protagonist sees one brave magpie step out from the nest and soar into the unknown.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.


The cover image of this video uses a photography by Phillip Capper. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/flissphil/

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